Constellations of Belonging: LGBTQ Artist Collectives as Alternative Social Worlds

In their 2012 collaborative work, CAN’T/WON’T, queer feminist craft artist, Allyson Mitchell, and her partner, video artist Deirdre Logue, offer a four-part manifesto for a more equitable (art-) world. Crocheted into the artists’ brightly coloured banners, the phrases, “WE WON’T COMPETE”, “WE CAN’T COMPETE”, “WE CAN’T KEEP UP”, and “WE WON’T KEEP DOWN,” transform these handicraft throws into activist placards. In an interview, Mitchell explains how the slogan “WE CAN’T COMPETE” arose from reflecting on

What it means to be a success or successful in this system, whether it’s in the general capitalist system, or within the specific system of art… seems to mean you generally have to be a fucking asshole, who does not collaborate, who is super competitive, who is “professional,” quote unquote. All those horrible things that we do not aspire to, and so that’s why the slogan ‘We Can’t Compete’ – how could we? But also, politically, we can’t and so we actually won’t. And instead we’re going to do all these other things like nurture, mentor, collaborate, feed, all that kind of stuff, rather than compete.”

For Mitchell, the competition and elitism of the art-world is intimately linked to overarching societal structures of oppression. Choosing not to contribute to this particular system of art, wherein Mitchell and Logue’s works are already devalued based on the artists’ identities as queer- and women-identified persons, the artists instead posit a unique alternative that replaces the capitalist imperative to compete with the queer feminist values of collaboration, mentorship, and nurturing.

From Gran Fury, to Fierce Pussy, to LTTR, to General Idea, to the Feminist Art Collective, to the JAC collective, to the many other clusters of artists and cultural producers that have come before and after these, queer artist collectives have generated – and continue to generate – new modes of being, relating, working, and connecting with others. With increasing national attention to issues of “gay marriage,” other constellations of queer rationalities (in line with what Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant have called “criminal intimacies”; “relations and narratives that are only recognized as intimate in queer culture [, such as] girlfriends, gal pals, fuckbuddies, tricks”) are becoming ever more peripheral to heteronormative and homonormative imaginaries. Through their negotiations of and with existing social institutions, their developments of ways of relating that do not require legal legitimization or longevity to matter, their emphasis on collaboration over competition, and their incorporation of visual and material productions into social and political life, LGBTQ arts-activist collectives and collaborations provide complex sites for queer scholarly investigation, as well as for re-imaging the social beyond the parochial valuation of marriage.

With this in mind, this paper sets out to theorize how the alternative forms of queer collectivity formulated through collaborative acts of making can serve as meaningful and subversive alternatives to the hegemony of the monogamous, married, heterosexual (and now, homosexual) couple, as well as to the biological, nuclear family unit. Here, I suggest that through exploring the affective and social structures of friendship, kinship, and intimacy as grounds for collaborative art-making practices, queer artist collectives have created important care economies and webs of support that push back against the systemic isolation and alienation of cis women, queer folks, and trans folks (as evidenced by the lines of solidarity forged between gay men and lesbians during the AIDS crisis.) In considering how these arts collectives provided intimate, artistically fulfilling, and politically important social networks, I hope that this paper can highlight this undervalued form of social organization to expand notions of “community” and queer belonging.


Part of panel Reimagining Queer Collectivities and Kinship Outside Marriage
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45